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Workingman’s Dead: the art of Leopold Plotek with Sovfoto propaganda images

You may want to take my suggestion to see Workingman’s Dead: Lives of the Artists — Paintings by Leopold Plotek and selections from the Sovfoto Archive with a grain of salt. And the grain is not because for most people going to the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie the trip will involve a car or GO train. The need for salt has to do with my liking Leopold Plotek. So: fair warning. It’s a departure for me, I know. But this column is about somebody I know something about.

Plotek was born in Moscow in 1948. He immigrated to Canada, by way of Warsaw, in 1960. He has lived in Montreal ever since. He is an artist and a teacher — and he approaches both roles with old-fashioned seriousness.

But being serious is quite different from being ponderous — as Plotek is the first to point out. He likes doing what he does, and he brings to his work the energy of his own enjoyments. He likes saxophonist Ben Webster, pianist Art Tatum, writer Samuel Johnson, composer Dmitri Shostakovich, hockey player Jean Béliveau, artists Honoré Daumier, Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Corsican recipes, the Goon Show — among the dozens of other enthusiasms that make him such excellent company.

Plotek actually has two shows on at the MacLaren Arts Centre in Barrie until Feb. 18. And if Hue and Cry — a selection of canvases from the past 10 years — were there on its own, I’d probably be recommending it. It’s worth the trip to Barrie just to see a master colourist at work. But it is the second show, Workingman’s Dead, that most captured my interest.

The 23,000 press photographs of the Sovfoto Archive are part of the MacLaren’s permanent collection. The images — produced by the Soviet photo agency largely for purposes of official propaganda — are remarkable: in the exhibit’s selection, composers Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, writers Isaac Babel and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein are presented to the world by Sovfoto as the Kremlin wanted them to be seen. These are strange, eerie photographs: a viewer has only to look into the sad, wary eyes of Shostakovich as he poses with his medals next to an unnamed and even more decorated Hero of Socialist Labour in 1947 to get some hint of the dread that artists were obliged to live with under Stalin.

Plotek’s canvases — hung amid the Sovfoto pictures — tell the same story, but from the perspective of someone who experiences this history as something that is in his blood and yet, just beyond his own experience. His paintings have about them the dreamlike quality of someone imagining the events that led to his own birth, to his own childhood, and to his immigration.

Plotek found himself in a new world in 1960 — the world of jazz and baseball and Cary Grant and Elvis Presley and the Montreal Canadiens — but the dark of the old world would never cease to haunt him. With the devastating understatement that is often used by people who know what they are talking about, Plotek describes life in the Soviet Union as “no picnic.” Workingman’s Dead makes it clear how terribly true this was for Soviet artists.

The subjects of Plotek’s paintings in Workingman’s Dead are Shostakovich, Babel (along with Stalin’s chief prosecutor, Lavrenty Beria), philosopher Isaiah Berlin, and Leningrad’s great poet, Anna Akhmatova. In one of the paintings — Self-portrait with a Zek, Hotel Metropol, 1948 — Plotek imagines his nanny walking him past an elevator in which the shadowy form of a prisoner on his way to the Gulag (“or worse”) can be seen. Such are our strange collisions with a history that — so Leopold Plotek makes ominously clear — is not so distant as we think.

Leopold Plotek: Hue and Cry and Workingman’s Dead; MacLaren Art Centre, 37 Mulcaster St., Barrie, until Feb. 18, 2013. Workingman’s Dead is going to the McMaster Museum of Art, in Hamilton, in March 2015.

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